Saturday, November 19, 2005


Having just read and thoroughly enjoyed Andrew Biswell's "the Real Life of Anthony Burgess" I hesitate to make any kind of review - since in some ways, unlike with a work of fiction, it would just be filching from the book itself. It's enough to say that in this compact book, Biswell's created a comprehensive introduction to both the man and his work for new and existing readers. Though Burgess is no longer with us, many of the people he knew and worked with still are, so sensibly, I think, Biswell concentrates on the early life, and the prolific novel writing of the early sixties. Yet, he also provides a real service in annotating where the life and work intertwine, through his comprehensive knowledge of the work, both published and unpublished. I'd not thought of Burgess as a particularly autobiographical writer - there was always something too ambitious about his style and themes - yet he clearly was; and in a way that, though commonplace now, was probably unnerving in the more censorious climate of the time. He appears to be at some distance from a literary establishment; but having read Martin Amis's "Experience" about his father; and Andrew Motion's biography of Larkin, the post-war years weren't a great time to be a British writer. It's one weakness, I think, whether deliberate, or simply because it's not there, is that there's very little on his relationship with editors, agents, commissioners; which might give a different insight in the sometimes insane breadth of his work. Only in the discussions on "A Clockwork Orange" did Burgess appear to seek and find editorial collaboration. I'm reminded in some ways of Bellow, as detailed in James Atlas's biography. The Chicago man was another writer who started publishing relatively late, relied heavily on the various support that he got from marriage, and wrote almost quixotically, and not too financially successfully, until a big, unexpected hit. Biswell's biography sends one back, time and again, to the books, surprisingly few of which are still in print. It also, I think, has something to add to the the "art" of literary biography. It's not a day-by-day account, giving equal value to everything in Burgess's life, but instead, concentrates on what the author considers vital, both in terms of life events and books. In a world where most writers of non-fiction prefer to give their version of the truth, is scrupulous, not just in sources but in the various "truths" that are on both the public and private record about Burgess's life. In it's evocation of that unlucky generation, born in the first world war, and sent to fight in the second world war it is also a powerful portrait of a world that is not quite history.

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